Tomorrow, a group of big-name restaurateurs will gather at the Frederick P. Rose Auditorium in Cooper Square for the first-ever Welcome Conference. According to its website, this will be a "forum to share ideas, inspire each other, and connect through conversation about hospitality." The event was created by Will Guidara, the co-owner/operator of The Nomad and Eleven Madison Park, and Anthony Rudolf, formerly of Thomas Keller Restaurant Group. It's essentially a hospitality-focused version of food symposiums like MAD and Mesamérica. Eater recently chatted with Will and Anthony about why they are organizing the Welcome Conference, and what they hope to achieve with this event.
How did this come together? And, specifically, is this an extension of your GM roundtable, the New York Dining Room Collaborative?
Anthony Rudolf: Certainly that brought our relationship together. But I think the idea — it's a no-brainer. The chefs are doing it, TED's been doing it. It's a great forum to bring together interesting and unique perspectives in one succinct day. Share, inspire, and connect — that's the mission of the day.
Will and I became friends in 2009, first at the Relais & Chateaux congress, which was at Biarritz, and then we just hit it off there and started connecting. And so one of the first meetings we had together was just to get to know each other. That turned into the New York City Dining Room Collaborative three or four years later. That's taken on a life of its own, and that has a president that's not one of us. This is an idea that Will and I have kicked around for a while, and a year and a half ago, we just decided, "Let's do this." And we planned it.
Will Guidara: Our relationship started initially as competitors. He was the GM at Per Se, and I was the GM at EMP. A story we like to reflect on is that those were kind of unique restaurants, but similar in a lot of ways, and we found that whenever a really good dining room candidate came to town they would always apply to our two restaurants. If they were really good, we'd both offer them a job, and it would be always be like, "Dammit, they went to work for Anthony." Or, "Dammit, they chose Will." And then Relais & Chateaux has the annual congress where members from all over the world get together in one city. The year that Eleven Madison Park was brought into it, Daniel and I went. And one night, Anthony and I just had a late night, just having drinks together, and in that night we realized that, hold on, yeah, competition is healthy, but it should be competition between friends who can actually rely on one another as a resource.
It was there in Biarritz that we realized there was a lack of community on the dining room side, and how most of the people at other restaurants that each one of us knew were all the chefs. But we were both reasonably new in our respective roles, facing challenges we'd never faced before, and we kind of made like a handshake agreement I guess that, hey, why don't we just agree that we can help one another? So we'd had a few breakfasts together and a few coffees together, and I'd say, "Hey I'm struggling with this." And he would say, "Hey I'm struggling with this." And our relationship kind of developed into these two different things. One where, in the pursuit of community in New York, we were able to get together with Jeff Katz from Del Posto and Antonio [Begonja] from Per Se and this group of people. That's been amazing, developing a New York community within the dining room. But the other thing was this, which started as kind of a very abstract idea, and then it was reinforced as each one of us would find ourselves attending Mesamérica or MAD. Through my relationship with Daniel [Humm], I ended up speaking at some of those, because often times we're like a packaged deal. And those things are inspiring. It's inspiring, the idea sharing that takes place. It's inspiring how a cook applies at Eleven Madison Park that used to work at Osteria Francescana, and now because we're friends with Massimo [Bottura], we'll make that phone call, whereas otherwise you probably would just take it on faith.
And so we started saying, "Wouldn't it be cool if we did something similar around dining rooms more than around hospitality." I forget the moment where we said, "Dude, let's just do it." And not knowing how our peers would respond to the idea and inviting people to speak, and also not knowing how our peers would respond. It's been really cool how many people when they were asked to speak were like, "Yeah, one hundred percent." And also, how many people not even from the dining world, but also from other industries have been excited to go.
Some of these symposiums, like Jubliee or MAD, are reactions to something, or they're trying to solve a problem. Is this a reaction to something? Are you trying to solve a problem? Do you think the hospitality world needs something like this?
Anthony: We didn't do this with a purpose to solve a problem. We have to create events to have this community of people. With the chefs, they have the farmers market where they can go and connect and share. They have natural triggers throughout their daily work life that allow them to come together and meet. Sommeliers have wine tastings weekly or bi-weekly, where they taste wine for their job, and they get to connect with other sommeliers. We don't have that. We go operate the restaurant, and with hospitality professionals, there's no natural trigger in the job that brings us all together in one common place. We have to create these things.
So, the New York City Dining Room Collaborative was a way for us to force ourselves to say, "We are going to consciously sit down four times a year or six times a year and come together." In a way, the Welcome Conference is an extension of that. It's creating a place where we can all come together, even if it's an annual thing. It's one new forced event to come together. More than anything, Will said that we were inspired by the collaboration that the chefs have and how freely they share.
Will: It's less a "reaction to," and more "inspired by." Service and hospitality are as much a craft that can be honed and improved upon as anything. You saw what Setting the Table by Danny [Meyer] did for our industry. It was really powerful. And so, to have a venue through which more people can kind of talk about their inspirations or philosophies is going to be really cool. I know that I'm going to leave that conference on Tuesday inspired to push, or leave inspired even if it's just with one new idea. I know that Eleven Madison and The Nomad are going to be better because of that. Whether it's from listening to the speeches from the other speakers, or even just the time spent talking to them or people attending. Any time you get people in a room to create a dialogue about something, I think it's a really beautiful thing.
You have a fairly diverse lineup of people involved. But among the speakers, is there one abiding philosophy that you all share?
Anthony: I think that the abiding philosophy is hospitality. And breaking that out even further is that there is no one way. There is no one way to make a hollandaise — there are many different variations on how to make a hollandaise. There's no one way of hospitality. So, it's really about varying perspectives. It's, how does Randy Garutti do it at an expanding empire of Shake Shacks? How does Will do it at Eleven Madison Park? How do the Canlis brothers do it in the Pacific Northwest with a restaurant that's been around for 60 years? And so, we're really trying to find all these different approaches to the same end result, which is to make people happy. There isn't one path. The thought was: How do we expose different paths? And I think the end result for all of us is really making people happy.
Will: It's definitely rooted in dining rooms, which is obvious, considering where we're from. But our hope is that year after year, that it is not all people from restaurants, but people from a lot of different industries. I mean, America is a service economy now. Service in the absence of hospitality is just black and white. It's been fun for us to watch people from construction buy tickets, and people from web companies buy tickets.
Why do you think they are buying tickets for this?
Will: Because I believe that service has become more and more a part of so many different industries. We want non-restaurant people more and more to be included in the lineup in future years because if you look at a lot of the successful newer younger companies, they have a much more heightened focus on customer service than their peers did five or 10 years ago.
Anthony: And the guest is more educated in what it means to be taken care of and cared for. So, across all the platforms, they're trying to find a way to raise their standards.
With this conference, are you trying to change diners' general perceptions about hospitality? Are you trying to establish that it should be appreciated as more of an artform, like cooking?
Will: We're not trying to change any element of the public perception as to why they would go to the restaurant. I go to a great restaurant because of its food. My experience there is enhanced by the hospitality. We're just trying to share, inspire, and connect. Those are the three words. "Share" is for all of us to share ideas. We've talked a little about our respective speeches to one another, and already, even in the absence of knowing where he's going with it, I'm getting fired up with what I'm doing with EMP and The Nomad. "Inspire," similarly, and "connect" to enhance community. We're blessed in that we both joined organizations, he with Thomas Keller and me with Danny Meyer, that celebrated service and hospitality. And if we can get a bunch of people who are similarly blessed in the room talking, the hope is that more people will be inspired to do the same.
Anthony: And even with the other speakers, we really didn't set too large of a framework for reference points. So in terms of expectations, we really only have expectations for our own speeches. An expectation of mine is that I can add a different perspective on just the word hospitality. But not necessarily where it's related, but how it's viewed and how it's used. But certainly not for what Paul Grieco will bring. I can't wait to see what he brings, but there's no expectation on what that interplay will be. So for us, the experience is as unknown, and the end result is as unknown, as it is for everybody.
Is there one specific thing you want people to learn from this conference?
Anthony: I don't think so. I don't think there's one particular thing to learn. I think if there's an awareness that comes out of it, it's that we do need to create opportunities like this for each other in order to connect on a regular basis. And that now that we're aware of it, we're responsible to it. And you know, I think Will and I are an example of that. We could have easily gone on with healthy competition trying to one-up each other on a regular basis, but we got past that once we realized it.
Will: And our friendship has made Eleven Madison Park better. We'll go out and get dinner and I tell him what's going on in my life, and he been like, "Oh you should try this." And I've tried it. He's even just been telling a story using a metaphor that I've brought back in my pre-meal. So I can now comfortably say that Anthony has made Eleven Madison Park better. That's cool.
We've never really fully articulated this, so it's a good question. If there's one thing that I hope people walk away with, it's that there's been this adage that's been used for a long time that hospitality is "something you're born with." You can debate the merits of that, but I would hope that people walk away with the idea that you can get better at being hospitable if you pursue it and if you study it and if you try to be inspired by those around you who are good at it. That although it maybe is this innate thing inside of you, that it is something you can study and practice and get better at.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
· All Coverage of The Welcome Conference [~ENY~]